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Lewis Baltz notebooks and ephemera, 1987-2011

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Baltz (Lewis) notebooks and ephemera

Biographical/Historical Note

American photographer and author Lewis Baltz first gained recognition as one of the key figures in the New Topographic Movement of the late 1970s, pioneering an approach to photography that refused to glorify industrial process, revealing instead landscapes blighted by rapid development and human detritus. Born in Newport Beach, California in 1945, Baltz became interested in photography at an early age and began photographing seriously at age 12. He poured over photography publications (early influences were Ed van der Elsken, Wright Morris and Edward Weston) and frequented camera shops, especially William R. Current's store in Laguna Beach, where the owner became his early mentor, employing him in the store at age 14. Baltz graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969 and received his MFA from Claremont Graduate School in 1971.

Growing up in postwar Southern California, Baltz witnessed first-hand the region's rapid transformation from open, agricultural and desert space into a homogenized urban environment. By 1967 he had already begun responding to the changes around him, creating tightly framed black-and-white photographs that recorded the generic, oft-overlooked details of these man-made environments – the flat, expansive stucco facades punctuated by blank windows and exterior piping; signage; parking lots; empty closets and set-like motel rooms of the new tract house developments and anonymous, light industrial and commercial urban spaces. These early single images, which he first called the Highway Series, were later to be collectively titled Prototype Works.

From single images of generic, urban details Baltz went on to produce images in series such as The Tract Houses (1969-1971), The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974-1975), Nevada (1977), Park City (1978-1981) and San Quentin Point (1981-1983) that charted, with minimalist precision, both the monotonous urbanization of once-isolated locations and the newly-created wastelands on their marginalized edges.

Baltz's first solo show, Tract Houses, was held at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in 1971 when he was 26. His work gained further recognition with his participation in the ground-breaking 1975 group exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins, and first held at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Along with Robert Adams and Joe Deal, among other photographers, Baltz advanced a documentary view of landscape which appositionally responded to their photographic predecessors, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, by abandoning all traces of the sublimity of the natural world in their work in favor of a detached, critical view of urban and suburban realities and their terrains.

In his serial work of the 1980s Baltz gradually shifted from black-and-white to color photography. This shift coincided with his feeling that he had exhausted the subject of the postwar industrial transformation of American landscape, and he began moving from creating images evoking the past, however recent, to creating those meant to convey the future. Candlestick Point (1984-1990), which includes his first color images (12 out of the 84 images in the series are color), explores the temporality of the no-man's land between the San Francisco airport and the city's ballpark. In this series, Baltz's only United States commission, he documented the desolate landfill that was destined to be made into Candlestick Point State Recreation Area.

Disenchanted with American Reagan-Bush era politics, Baltz moved to Europe in the late 1980s, where his use of color photography coincided with a paradigmatic shift in his serial works from making what were essentially documentary images to making images with a more explicit social and political content. He became especially interested in exploring the uses and abuses of new technologies. In series such as The Power Trilogy (1992-1995) Baltz explores the omnipresence of surveillance cameras and society's increasing dependence on and subsequent vulnerability to powerful new science and medical technologies. Next, his practice further moved from making traditionally-sized serial photographs suitable for gallery and museum viewing, i.e. in a "private" setting, to the creation of large-scale, site- or audience-specific works, often manifested as a single image. These projects were primarily created for public spaces and broad public audience participation. Furthermore, in works such as Piazza Sigmund Freud (1989) and SHHHH! (for Luxembourg) (1995) Baltz broadened his definition of what a "site" might be, moving from the concept of a concrete, physical place to seeing a site as embodying a social fabric, a community or the history of a place. Yet, despite such shifts in his practice, Baltz's subject always essentially remains the fraught and highly complex relationships between urban space, architecture, landscape and ecology.

Seeing books as more democratic and less precious than original photographs, Baltz began publishing from his serial work in 1974 with The New Industrial Parks near Irvine California. Although he favored machine-made, mass-produced publications over unique handmade artists' books, Baltz nevertheless insisted on achieving facsimile reproduction in order to create an experience closer to or even better than viewing an original photographic print. His early books were published by Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1993 Baltz met the publisher Gerhard Steidl, the printer for the Fotomuseum Winterthur's (Scalo Verlag) reproduction of the catalog for Baltz's 1990 retrospective Rule without Exception. Steidl became his primary publisher, producing new books as well as reprinting the early Castelli Gallery publications.

Baltz was the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a scholarship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1973, 1977), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1977), the US-UK Bicentennial Exchange Fellowship (1980), and the Charles Brett Memorial Award (1991). He had over 50 one-person exhibitions, not only at Castelli, where he was part of the gallery's stable for a number of years, but also at museums and galleries such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Tokyo Institute of Polytechnics, and the Albertina. His work has also been in more than 160 group exhibitions, commencing with California Photographers 1970 at the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art and including seven recent thematic exhibitions in 2011, three of which were associated with the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time: Under the Big Black Sun: California Art, 1974-1981 (MOCA); It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973 (Pomona College Museum of Art); and Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984 (California Museum of Photography, Riverside). Baltz's works are found in museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Tate Modern, London; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Baltz taught in numerous East Coast and West Coast American universities as well as at the Università Iuav Di Venezia and the European Graduate School EGS in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He was married to the photographer Slavica Perkovic, with whom he frequently collaborated. Baltz died in Paris in 2014.

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